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​PATEL: Decrease merit-based aid

Merit scholarships unfairly privilege high-income students

In a recent piece entitled “Merit scholars don’t need more money,” Emily McDuff makes the argument that Jefferson Scholars who apply for and receive other scholarships are doing so just to add to their resume while simultaneously detracting from the opportunities available to other students. In the piece she points out the large number of applicants for the Sky Alland and the Gray-Carrington scholarships, two prestigious awards given to fourth-year students at the University, who were already Jefferson Scholars. The Jefferson Scholarship covers tuition, room, board and expenses for four years and the other two cover tuition and room and board for the fourth year.

McDuff did not go far enough in her criticism of merit-based aid. The Jefferson Scholarship is reflective of the excess inherent in merit-based aid and of the need for higher education to significantly reduce merit-based aid in favor of need-based aid.

There was a recent editorial in The Cavalier Daily entitled “Free Tuition is unrealistic” that addressed a similar problem. Cooper Union College for the Advancement of Science and Art was formerly tuition-free for all students, but due to financial difficulties has removed that policy. It was replaced by a 50 percent scholarship for all students and a full scholarship for those with demonstrated need while also providing those students with $2,000 stipends for other expenses.

This case encapsulates the entire problem between need- and merit-based aid. Rather than supplying aid solely based on merit, in this scenario measured by being accepted to the school, University officials sacrificed the interests of those students to further accommodate students with actual need. The national trend in higher education is in this direction but isn’t moving fast enough.

Merit-based aid is good in moderation. America is a meritocracy in principle and perhaps somewhat in practice, so it makes sense that some sort of merit-based aid remains in the university system. However, merit-based aid often relies on GPA and standardized test scores, two measures of academic performance that highly correlate with income. The results are that students of relatively high socioeconomic status don’t have to pay for college — when they can afford to more easily than others — because they have high socioeconomic status. Another problem appears when merit-based aid remains high at the same time need-based aid decreases and costs go up. Studies have shown the introduction of a merit-based program of financial aid results in a reduction in the percentage of lower income students and a drop in black student enrollment for both private and public colleges.

How can we justify a system in which privilege replaces merit for a handful of enormous scholarships while hundreds sit on the sidelines crippled by need? I am not singling out just the Jefferson Foundation but rather merit-based aid everywhere. Merit-based aid is a new phenomenon that colleges have invented in the past 50 years to spend money to very quickly increase statistics compared to other schools.

The given goal of the Jefferson Foundation is to “attract to the University the most promising leaders, scholars, and citizens in the world.” This is a fancy way of saying the foundation wants to buy students who wouldn’t otherwise come here with full scholarships. This is a short-term way of thinking of how to increase the prestige of the University. All merit-based aid functions in this way. It is an abomination designed to increase statistics and prestige.

“Aid” is defined as to help, assist or support someone in the achievement of something. Aid used to be about helping students with need afford an education they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Rather than continuing in this noble tradition, higher education has begun to contaminate this once pure system for its own selfish ends. To further exacerbate the situation, this change has come at a time when the rising cost of education and rising income inequality have already prevented many from being able to afford college. Merit-based aid must be dramatically reduced to realign our values to help the people most in need.

Sawan Patel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at